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The Way of the Mysterian


I must say, I found Theodore Dalrymple’s piece “What the New Atheists Don’t See” in the current City Journal unsatisfactory.

TD unmasks himself as what Kingsley Amis called, in reference to himself, “an unwilling unbeliever.” I’m kind of the same way myself, but it’s not a happy thing to be. The atheists scoff at you for being wishy-washy: “For goodness sake just come right out and say it, man—Religion’s all nonsense! Go on, say it—You’ll feel much better!” On the other hand, religious types see you as a potential recruit, and nag you endlessly: “Since you’re not a sticks-and-stones materialist atheist, since you admit that there’s something else going on, surely you must agree that…”

It’s just not a good position from which to say anything about religion. People like TD and myself understand that the universe is a deeply mysterious place, and the human personality likewise. (In reference to which, by the way, I refuse to let anyone get away with using the word “materialist.” either positively or negatively, unless that person can demonstrate to me that he has at least attempted to understand modern theories—which are (a) incomplete and (b) mathematically extremely sophisticated—about the nature of matter. Having read Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality will do as a proxy.)

On the other hand, we “unwilling unbelievers” are not willing to confess belief in the kinds of historical events claimed as real by all the big religions. Those events seem to us just too highly improbable; and in any case, you have to pick which set to believe in. The Christian account of the Son of God, the Muslim account of the Messenger of God, and the Hindu account of the seven (I think it is) Incarnations of God are mutually exclusive for devotional purposes. The most parsimonious explanation, it seems to us, is that all of them were just made up. Further, the mysteries of faith just don’t seem very interesting to us by comparison with real mysteries like the one mentioned in passing in the previous paragraph. They have a contrived quality, and are not very imaginative.

On the other hand, conservatives like TD and myself are inclined to defer to human nature in its generality, and there is no doubt that human beings are innately, instinctively religious. The Dennett-Dawkins-Hitchens program to sweep away all those musty old cobwebs of faith and deliver humanity into the pure clear light of reason just bears far too close a resemblance to every other millenarian project, from Spartacus’s City of the Sun to New Soviet Man. No thanks. Human nature has its unappealing side, but grand projects to overhaul it invariably end with a mountain of corpses. We’ll take humanity as it is, religion and all. This attitude is, it seems to me, the essence of a conservative outlook.

We irreligious are a minority—always have been, always will be. We are freaks and sports. A proper humility is in order. We don’t have to surrender our faith in the ordinary rules of evidence, nor (in a free society at any rate) assent to the truth of things that seem to us highly unlikely to be true. It’s awfully hard for us to venture commentary in this zone, though, without sounding condescending or insincere, or just caught up in a purely aesthetic enchantment with the outward forms of religion, as in TD’s appreciation of that Anglican divine he is gushing over, or my own love of the old hymns and liturgy. That enchantment is psychologically real, but, certainly so far as actual believers are concerned, spiritually empty. It can’t but be irritating to them, it seems to me—coming across as something like false flattery; and to the dogged atheists it is of course beyond irritating.

Probably the best approach for “unwilling unbelievers” like TD and myself is just to say nothing. Of course, if we were the types to say nothing, we’d find some other way to make a living…

(And by the way, it wasn’t J-P Sartre who cursed God for not existing, it was Hamm. You won’t get that past a Sam Beckett fan.)


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